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7 films that underlined Sharmila Tagore's versatility – Birthday special

From Kashmir Ki Kali to Namkeen, we look at films that saw Sharmila Tagore in different avatars from demure damsel to bold siren.

Anita Paikat

She is a veteran actress with deep dimples, a former head of the Central Board of Film Certification, and wife of one of India's most-admired cricketers and a nawab to boot, now sadly no more. She is Sharmila Tagore.

Sharmila was but a 15-year-old schoolgirl when she first appeared on the big screen in Satyajit Ray’s Bengali film, Apur Sansar, in 1961, the third and final part of his fabled Apu trilogy. The film marked the beginning of a glorious career that extended for almost five decades.

As the actress, heartthrob of millions of Hindi cinema fans in the 1960s, turns 73 (8 December), we celebrate by revisiting seven of her best-known Hindi films.

1. Kashmir Ki Kali (1964)

Shakti Samanta had already spent a decade in the industry and directed films like Howrah Bridge (1958) and China Town (1962). He picked up a new face, 18-year-old Sharmila Tagore, for Kashmir Ki Kali and paired her with Shammi Kapoor, with whom he had previously worked in China Town and Singapore (1960). From its title and locations to songs, it seems like Samanta was focused on highlighting the beauty of the newcomer. Her innocent eyes and deep dimples made her a household name. Also, her surname helped, marking her out as a distant relative of the ‘Bard of Bengal’, Rabindranath Tagore.

2. Anupama (1966)

This was a time when Dharmendra had yet to establish his own brand. Beginning in 1960, he had mostly done side roles or second leads. His career was just gaining momentum when Anupama came by. But this film, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, belonged to Sharmila Tagore.

Anupama (Tagore) is the sad daughter of successful businessman Mohan Sharma (Tarun Bose). Mohan lost his beloved wife to childbirth complications and thus develops a love-hate relationship with the daughter. He only provides her with luxuries and deprives her of any affection. The angst and despair that the child suffers is what Anupama is about.

Tagore caught the essence of the character right. She looked perfect on screen, yet one could feel the pain within her.

3. An Evening In Paris (1967)

This film, directed by Shakti Samanta, saw Sharmila Tagore in a different avatar. She shed her demure, sari-clad image and adorned tight pants, skimpy tops and even a swimsuit. The actress wanted to take the braver path and wear a bikini in the film. However, the director played safe and convinced her to settle for one-piece instead.

To Bikini or not to Bikini – Remembering An Evening In Paris

Tagore wasn’t playing bold to catch eyeballs but because her character was bold, adventurous, independent and rich. Deepa, who has faced many a heartbreak at the hands of greedy suitors, travels to Paris, city of love, in search of true love. The meek Tagore of Anupama and Devar (1966) was now a modern woman with her own taste in men and lifestyle.

4. Aradhana (1969)

Sharmila Tagore has a number of films that could be included in her ‘best list’. Shakti Samanta's Aradhana is one. Tagore, as Vandana Tripathi, saunters in the idyllic hilly terrain, dressed in colourful sarees, singing to the tunes of the charming Flight Lieutenant Arun Verma (Rajesh Khanna). They fall into thunderous love, and consummate their relationship out of wedlock, as the metaphorical thundershowers suggest.

As treacherous fate has it, Arun dies on one of his missions, leaving the pregnant Vandana behind. The rest of the film narrates her ordeal and the return of Khanna as the son. As the plot suggests, Tagore had to shed tears more often in this film, but she never made you feel bored or overwhelmed with sadness. You mourned the loss of her love, and adored her affection for her son, in equal measure.

5. Amar Prem (1972)

Amar Prem, yet another Sharmila Tagore collaboration with Shakti Samanta and meaning ‘immortal love’, indeed made her immortal on the big screen as the courtesan Pushpa. The famous line uttered by co-star Rajesh Khanna, ‘Pushpa, I hate tears’, is still played with. The love spoken of in the film is not the regular relationship shared by a couple, but far greater. It is the relationship between a man and woman, without any promises, lust, jealousy, expectations. It is the love that only wants the other’s presence.

Khanna and Tagore both aced their roles. The former played a dejected man, the latter a cheated, ‘fallen’ woman. They find solace in each other, and lead a life of mutual respect and understanding.

While Khanna charmed the audience with the tilt of his head and the affectionate grin, Tagore won hearts as the naive girl, who doesn’t even realize that the man taking money from her in the name of her mother is duping her.

6. Chupke Chupke (1975)

The comedy drama, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, had an ensemble cast of Jaya Bachchan (then Bhaduri), Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, Om Prakash, Keshto Mukherjee, Asrani, and Sharmila Tagore.

Professor Parimal Tripathi (Dharmendra) is married to Sulekha (Tagore) but is tired of her praise for brother-in-law Raghavendra (Om Prakash). As a bet with his wife, he sets out to challenge the brother-in-law’s famed intelligence. Confusion and hilarious moments make for the rest of the film.

Though all the characters are important, the roles of Dharmendra and Tagore stand out. Dharmendra plays the fun-loving prankster while Tagore plays the doting wife and sister-in-law, who is adamant enough to participate in the game just to prove her husband wrong.

7. Namkeen (1982)

Namkeen was Gulzar’s tenth directorial venture. He had proved to be the maker of offbeat films with the likes of Mere Apne (1971), Parichay (1972), Mausam (1975), Khushboo (1975), Aandhi (1975), and Kinara (1977). His films were more rooted in reality and had tales bound by the most basic relations and emotions. Namkeen was no exception.

The film had a stellar cast with Waheeda Rehman, Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi, Kiran Vairale and Sharmila Tagore. In a remote village in Himachal Pradesh, Jugni (Waheeda), mother of three young unmarried daughters, toils to keep them fed and clothed. As if this weren’t hard enough, she also needs to protect them from the menacing alcoholic father Kishanlal.

Without a doubt, Waheeda Rehman stole the film, but the others didn’t go unappreciated. The film was released on the state-owned television channel Doordarshan as it didn’t find distributors for a theatrical release.

In the next decade, the 1990s, Sharmila Tagore moved on from lead roles to playing sister and sister-in-law of the new leads. At the turn of the century, she moved further up the family tree, with roles of mother and grandmother.

Hindi cinema has shown little regard for older women in the industry. In a recent interview, Tagore expressed similar concern, saying, “So many scripts are written for elderly male actors; these things are not happening for female actors. The girls have to be very young and the man can carry on forever.”

We hope the shifting subjects in current cinema bring more opportunities for versatile middle-aged actresses and we get to see more of Tagore's undisputed talent and charm.